The air is thick at the Acropolis of Athens. Voices get trapped in the wind, and the vicissitudes of the sky are rapid and endless: seraphic blue with clouds like sliced heads of cauliflower, navy with massive grey cumulus, a coruscating bleached out white.
In 399 BCE, democracy had just been restored following the reign of the Thirty Tyrants. Phidias’ thirty-foot bronze statue of Athena rose over the city. The gilt tip of her lance was visible from the sea.
Thousands of visitors were in Athens for an annual religious festival. Sesame seed husks, fruit cores, and bones littered the burgundy stained streets. The high priest of Apollo garlanded the stern of a tribute ship bound for the island of Delos. A sacrifice was offered at Marathon. A solemn twelve year old boy carried an olive branch strung with fruit and wool in the procession for the Seasons and the Sun.
The consolidated floor plan is located at the southwest corner of the Agora of Athens, adjacent to the street where the marble cutters had their workshops. The unremarkable stone remains of a corridor and eight cells are likely the ruins of the state jail where the philosopher Socrates was imprisoned 2,400 years ago.
According to his student Plato, Socrates’ cell had a pallet bed pushed against the wall, a night table with a small oil lamp, and footstools. A basin and a large jar are set in the floor of the northwest cell, which was probably a bathroom. Thirteen clay and lead medicine bottles about four centimetres high were discovered in the bottom of a cistern. The foundation suggests that the jail had two floors.
Socrates is associated with the aphorism inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, ‘Know thyself.’ He had three sons and a difficult marriage to his wife Xanthippe. He was omnipotent in the Plaka and the Agora; wrestling in the gymnasium; holding dialogues outside perfume sellers and cobbler’s workshops; standing in a trance for hours while he mulled a problem, always barefoot. When he came upon a particularly decadent display at the market he exclaimed, ‘How many things I have no need of!’ He refused to charge fees for teaching and survived on tips from wealthy patrons. He taught with relentless questioning. He warned Athenians that pleasure and pain are attached at the head and the pursuit of one leads to the other. Groups inspired by Socrates included the Sceptics, the Cynics, the Academics, the Peripatetics and the Hedonists.
Three men brought a public action against Socrates for being a menace to society. He was tried before a jury of 501 Athenian citizens, on charges of introducing new divinities, not believing in the gods the city believed in, and corrupting the young. His pupil Plato recorded Socrates’ defence, his proposal for the penalty, and his final address to the jury in the Apology. Socrates was found guilty and sentenced to death.
He spent one month in the state prison. His visitors recalled lenient regulations and sympathetic warders. In Plato’s account of his final days Socrates retires to an inner room to bathe. This suggests his cell was the one with access to the room with the basin set in the floor.
Executions were postponed in Athens until the return of the tribute ship from Delos. The prisoners must have been able to hear the processions up the Panathenaic Way.
The sails of the tribute ship rose over the horizon at the southern tip of the Attica peninsula. The sailors on board saw the Temple of Poseidon on the cliffs at Sunium and knew they would be in Athens in a day.
In Plato’s account, Socrates was calm as he waited for the return of the ship from Delos. His friend Crito arrived at the prison to announce the boat had been spotted at Sunium. Socrates met the news with equanimity, and declined Crito’s offer to help him escape.
The plump orange moon rose behind the torch-lit Acropolis. The high priest of the Delphic Oracle took his seat in the Theatre of Dionysus. Fifty-man choirs sang odes to Apollo and actors in cork masks cast long shadows across the stage and the tribute ship raced north to Piraeus through the choppy black Aegean Sea.
Hermes was originally the protector of commerce and the messenger of the gods. In Athens, protective aniconic marble statues called herms were placed outside houses and shops. There was more graffiti dedicated to Hermes than to any other deity. Spells and incantations were scratched on roof tiles and around the rims of lamps. Herms were carved onto door frames and walls.
In 399 BCE, Athens was in the midst of a transition from an oral to a literate culture. The inherited oral culture was stored on rolls of papyrus. Inconsistencies in knowledge were analyzed, and literacy was on the rise. Athenians scratched their names on ceramic pitchers. ‘I am rightfully (the possession) of Andriskos.’ Socrates lived through this transition. If he wrote anything it did not survive the classical age. It is not even a certainty that Socrates could read, though his pupils depicted him as a reader. Plato wrote that Socrates spent his final days composing verses based on Aesop’s fables.
Phaedo of Elis was a handsome boy who was born in a small district on the southern tip of the mainland, two generations after Socrates. Phaedo was captured during the war between Elis and Sparta and taken to Athens by a slave trader. His release was bartered by either Socrates or a member of his circle. Phaedo’s thick hair curled at the nape of his neck, and Socrates loved teasing his protégée about his curls.
He owes his posterity to Plato’s Phaedo, which made him the conduit of Socrates’ last testament. The matryoshka dialogue is a product of the oral culture the participants were leaving behind. It is set in a small town in the Peloponnese. Phaedo describes Socrates’ final hours on earth to a group of philosophers. He asks the men if they are familiar with the circumstances of the trial and Echecrates says yes, someone told us about that. Phaedo lists the people who were in the jail with Socrates on the last day of the festival. He adds that he believes Plato was ill.
In the Phaedo there are at least twenty men engaging in Socrates’ final dialectic. When the narrator arrived at the jail Socrates’ wife Xanthippe was leaving with their son. Phaedo said that everyone except Socrates was struggling to contain their grief. Socrates explained that someone who has really devoted their life to philosophy has no reason to be afraid of dying.
It would have been crowded in the cell where Plato says Socrates waited for the sunset and argued that the soul is immortal. Socrates was seventy years old, thickset and bald, with a long white beard and bushy eyebrows. He was reclined on the bed, with Phaedo of Elis sitting on a footstool to his right. He stroked Phaedo’s curls for the last time.
Socrates told his disciples that until philosophy takes it over, the soul is a helpless prisoner which views reality through prison bars erected by the prisoner’s own active desires. He told them when a soul feels a keen pleasure or pain, it cannot help supposing that whatever causes the most violent emotion is the truest reality, when oftentimes it is not.
Socrates left no burial instructions. He bathed, possibly using the basin and jar set in the floor of the northwest cell at the site of the state prison. He took his time. He was cheerful as he said goodbye to his three sons and the women of his household.
‘The Master seemed quite happy, Echecrates, both in his manner and in what he said; he met his death so fearlessly and nobly.’
The Sun edged into the horizon. The prison officer came to say goodbye with tears in his eyes. The hemlock poison was in a thimble-sized medicine bottle. Socrates was instructed to drink it and walk around the room until his legs felt heavy.
When Socrates drank the hemlock most of his companions started to cry. Crito left the cell, and Phaedo covered his face. Apollodorus’ weeping set everyone else off. Socrates told everyone to buck up. He walked slowly up and down his cell. The floors were probably newly surfaced with marble chips. Someone probably lit the oil lamp. Sobs were muffled. Socrates announced that his legs were numb. He stretched out on the bed and the man who had brought the poison pinched his foot, then his ankle, his calf, his knee.
The state jail where Socrates spent the last month of his life was probably built in the fifth century BCE. The building stood until the Roman general Sulla sacked Athens in 89 CE. Two grand homes were built over the site in Augustan times.
The area southwest of the Agora was excavated in the 1930s and the 1940s, with a break during World War II. In 1977 a new team removed the foundations of the Roman houses. They uncovered the pithos set in the floor of the bathing area. They filled in the gaps in the walls with dry masonry.
The archaeologists found Laconian roof tiles. Basins used by the marble workers. Thirteen thimble-sized lead and terracotta medicine bottles in the bottom of the cistern in the northwest room.
‘I am rightfully (the possession) of Andriskos,’ Graffiti in the Athenian Agora, Mabel. L. Lang, American School of Classical Studies at Athens, June, 1988.
‘The Master seemed quite happy, Echecrates,’ The Last Days of Socrates: Euthyphro, The Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Plato, (Phaedo), Translated by Hugh Tredennick, Penguin Books, 1954.